Voice-based and other personal assistant apps — which use natural language and hefty AI engines in the backend to source information to address your various questions, do your e-commerce bidding, or control one electronic device or another in your home — have been around for years, but too often they have come up short when it comes to user experience, failing to nail the right solutions to your queries. Today a new app is launching from a startup that has largely been in stealth mode up to now to try to address that disparity. Brain Technologies is today announcing $50 million in funding, and along with that is releasing Natural, an iOS app, in the US market.
The $50 million (which is actually described as “over $50 million” by the company, with an exact number undisclosed), meanwhile, is coming from a very interesting mix of investors — backers include Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Goodwater Capital, Scott Cook and WTT Investment, a list that underscores some of the attention that Brain has been getting, even before having released a single product.
Prior to this round, Brain had raised $1.5 million back in 2016 from an unnamed investor while still in stealth mode.
Jerry Yue, the young founder and CEO of Brain — a repeat entrepreneur and robotics enthusiast whose last company, a grocery delivery service in China called Benlai, is still going strong — said in an interview that he does not like to call Natural a “personal assistant” app, not because of the shortcomings of so many of these in the past, but because of the voice association many have with the concept.
“We don’t position ourselves as a voice assistant because we don’t think the future is voice only,” he said. “It should be the right combination of voice and native app experience.”
Instead, he describes what Natural is as the world’s first “generative computer interface”, the logical progression in digital information search.
That progression, in his view, started with the web, progressed to search engines, and then apps, before landing where he sees it today. Natural brings all of these together in some degree. Currently, you speak or type any kind of question or command into the app, which then provides a solution that might be in the form of links to other apps you might have.
For example, “I’d like sushi tonight,” will bring back options (in theory) for ordering sushi, and possibly your most favored dishes, from a selection of restaurants by way of food ordering apps that you use, or places to go eat it, as well as options for making that sushi yourself (and buying the ingredients online to do so, as well as a method).
Similarly, travel searches return results that dip into multiple silos from, say, airlines and airline aggregators that are easily editable and that you can buy directly from those results, if you already have payment details on your device. (While Google provides this to some degree, you eventually have to navigate to sites to buy tickets, which might end up significantly more expensive when you actually visit said sites.)
The more you use the app, the theory is that it will learn more about what you might want from your questions.
AI that anticipates what we are trying to say or do is something that has been attempted before, of course, but the difference here, Yue said, is in Brain’s approach, which is based on the concept of “one shot” learning, which he described as a kind of general purpose AI, “a tool that learns to use other tools.”
The alternative is a more labor-intensive approach that AI-based systems are typically built on today, largely based around keywords. “AIs from Google or Amazon are based on thousands of people and human coding to connect services,” he said. “This approach treats natural language processing as a classification problem.” In contrast, the breakthrough system he and his team have devised, he said, “has learned more than 4 million functions on its own.” Ironically, the end result of a successful AI like this is not to make us feel more technologically powerful, but to get us away from our devices, and spending time fussing on them, and into the world.
Given that this is a consumer app, it will be interesting to see how and if there is mass takeup of Natural, and whether the right combination of anticipatory AI with natural language and design come together to pique collective attention. The team and what they’ve built in any case will be a hot property, given that AI will continue to be a strong and growing presence in the tech landscape for years to come.
“What Jerry and his team are developing is incredibly special. I’m not aware of anyone doing more interesting work to demonstrate how fundamentally AI can enhance our everyday lives,” said investor Scott Cook, who was also the founder of financial software giant Intuit, in a statement.
“Many of us remember the first time we used an iPhone. The software felt magical, and every animation felt dynamic yet subtle,” said Tom Goodwin, a Natural beta customer. “Experiencing this app is the closest thing I’ve felt to that for a long time. I love the idea of one place to go for everything.”